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U.S. Agents Make Increasing Use of Informants : But 'Handlers' Face Complex Legal Hazards When Condoning Criminal Acts

June 15, 1986|RONALD J. OSTROW and ROBERT L. JACKSON | Times Staff Writers

Attorneys in the Justice Department's office of professional responsibility concluded that Presser had no FBI authorization after all. They determined that the authorization was concocted after the fact to protect a highly valued informant, although he was taken off the informant rolls when he became Teamster president in 1983.

Presser's handlers in the FBI conceded that they had failed to follow Civiletti's 1980 guidelines, which required the FBI to leave a written record when it permitted an informant to commit an otherwise criminal act. Nor did they receive authorization from the agent in charge of their Cleveland office, as required in the case of "extraordinary" crimes--a category that covers Presser's alleged offenses. Friedrick and Presser's other two handlers had a reason--that the ghost payments were already being made when the 1980 guidelines went into effect.

May Have Lost Perspective

Sources inside the FBI believe that if Friedrick lied about authorizing Presser's ghost payments, as he is accused of doing, he did it for the best of motives: to protect a highly prized informant. They point out that Friedrick is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who was wounded leading a Marine platoon in Vietnam and compiled an award-winning record as an FBI agent.

But government sources outside the bureau who are familiar with the record contend that Friedrick became overwhelmed with the power of his informant, who boasts an enormous salary as president of the Teamsters Union, had stretch limousines and Teamster-owned Learjets at his command and was classified as "top echelon" because the FBI believed he had access to the top levels of organized crime.

"It became a question of who was controlling whom," said one non-FBI investigator, who declined to be identified by name.

Presser's is hardly the first FBI informant case of recent years that has become embroiled in controversy. The FBI's highly effective Abscam investigation, a bribery "sting" operation aimed at members of Congress in the early 1980s, was itself flawed by the work of a controversial FBI informant, Melvin C. Weinberg, who was a convicted con artist.

Received $250,000

Weinberg helped the FBI by vouching for the credentials of undercover agents who were masquerading as wealthy Arab sheiks in search of political favors from members of Congress. For his services, the government paid Weinberg $250,000 over the course of three years and provided him with expense money to travel between New York and Florida without always accounting for his time and movements.

Although Abscam resulted in the convictions of seven past or present members of Congress, a select Senate committee found that the FBI failed to supervise Weinberg adequately and allowed him to continue his escapades as a con man.

In addition, federal court files revealed that some FBI agents assigned to work with Weinberg purchased sports coats and other items from him at bargain prices and accepted small favors from him. FBI agent Anthony Amoroso, for example, said in a sworn affidavit that he paid Weinberg $2,300 for some books, used clothing and second-hand furniture.

FBI officials testified that they did not condone such relationships between agents and informants. However, Weinberg's conduct did not legally taint any of the bribery or conspiracy convictions obtained in Abscam, they said, and a series of federal District Court and appellate judges agreed.

Justice Department Faulted

Even the FBI's parent agency, the Justice Department, has shown too little concern for the niceties of the informant system, according to a recent report on the Presser case by the investigation subcommittee. In a report last month, the subcommittee faulted the department for hesitating to press the FBI for information about its informants, even when such data might be crucial to an active departmental investigation.

"Presumably the department did not wish to jeopardize good relations with the FBI," the report said. "However, this laudable goal appears to have resulted in the department dealing with the FBI as an autonomous entity to which it had to defer, rather than as part of the department under the jurisdiction of . . . the attorney general."

The subcommittee criticized Justice Department attorneys for failing to press the FBI about its relationship to Presser. Had they done so, the subcommittee said, their badly mishandled Presser investigation could have been concluded much sooner.

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